As sardars, or princely chiefs of Balochistan, they were the Sean Connery-look alikes: gentlemen of smart moustaches, clipped tones, an Enfield rifle under their arm, as at home on a horse as in a battered Mercedes, and educated at Aitchison College, Pakistan’s (and prior to 1947, India’s) Eton, where the western subcontinent’s old-fashioned, non-military ruling elite got their grounding.
Time was also when you couldn’t be a hip young radical Pakistani of the 60s and 70s unless, like commentator Ahmed Rashid, you were involved in the Marxist Balochistan liberation movement. But since the murder of Nawab Akbar Bugti in 2006 by Pakistan’s agencies — his grandson was killed in Karachi at the end of June — the sardars and the ageing lefties have no longer been able to protect their people and their dreams of a self-governing Balochi state.
The Pakistan army offensive around Quetta, funded by the US with the stated purpose of defeating the Taliban, is cover for a more far-reaching policy of ethnic cleansing of Balochis.
Put bleakly, it is a question of which is more valuable to the Pakistan’s military state. On the one hand is the 12.5 per cent increase in their military budget, which is umbilically tied to Washington ($800m of which is to be withheld, it was announced today) for taking on the Taliban in south Waziristan and around Quetta. On the other is the opportunity to exploit long-term the mineral wealth of Balochistan — gas, oil, copper, coal — with Chinese partners, in a highly strategic area close to the Straits of Hormuz, perhaps on the proviso that the tactics used in the region will not be too disimilar to those used in Tibet. That is to say, the destruction of nationalism, and the repression of a 150 year independence movement.
Wild, beautiful and eccentric, Balochistan has always had an edgy history. It is a vast area west of Sindh and south of Afghanistan that occupies just under half of Pakistan’s landmass and about 4 per cent (just under 7 million) of its population. Like the princely nizam state of Hyderabad in India, it held out under the Khan of Kalat against the central governments of newly founded Pakistan and was absorbed under intense military pressure (hangings and killings) in 1948.
The full strategic importance of the region became clear when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979. In a rare display of US interest to prevent a Soviet advance to the “warm waters” of the Gulf, it became a destination of World Bank projects and developments, even if projects were just a brief respite in what can only be described as “terror”. An insurgency against the sacking of the left-wing Balochi government in 1973 by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto resulted in the army being brought in to suppress an insurgency in which 10,000 Balochis were killed.
In the last ten years, an estimated 14,000 Baloch men have been spirited away by the Pakistan intelligence agencies, their mutiliated bodies turning up every few days in the mountains passes around Quetta, in the barren deserts that lie north of the Makran coast and in urban Karachi. Many are considered to be the cream of Balochi society, and the carriers and bearers of its culture: professors and teachers, lawyers, political activists, sportsmen, student leaders, singers and poets. A report by Zofeen Ebrahim for IPS News shows the action is tantamount to ethnic cleansing. It has also included media blackouts.
Pakistan Telecommunications Authority blocked the online news service the Baloch Hal in Pakistan at the end of 2010, having banned another Baloch newspaper, Daily Asaap, and harassed the staff of Daily Azadi and Balochistan Express. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has been petitioning the Supreme Court on missing persons since 2007. Some have been returned safely to their families, but there is a lack of resolve in the state to deal with the thousands of cases of torture and murder. Balochistan’s chief minister, Aslam Raisani, said in a BBC interview last year that Pakistan’s security agencies were behind the abductions and killings. A recent report by the HRCP found that “agents of the state, as well as the insurgents and extremists operating in the province, share a common disregard for rights of the citizens”.
For organisations such as Unrepresented Nations and People Organisation (UNPO) and Crisis Balochistan, the concern is that China — which is expanding the deep port close to the Iranian border at Gwadar for both naval and merchant berths and is thought to be reconnoitering the area for mineral deposits outside the Sui gas fields — may recommend to Pakistan’s state that methods similar to those employed in Tibet be used to suppress the people and destroy their culture.
In the last month, high profile murders have included Professor Saba Dashtyari of Balochistan University, a distinguished scholar and teacher and the third member of the staff of the university to be shot, the boxer Abrar Hussain, who represented Pakistan at the Olympics, 22-year-old Shafi Baloch, leader of the Baloch Students Organisation, whose body was found two weeks ago in the area of the Bolan pass, and Sanghat Sana Baloch, the leader of the Balochistan Republican Party. Ordinary Balochis are being kidnapped by Pakistan’s state agencies in their hundreds each week, tortured and their mutilated bodies left in the wild landscapes for families and relatives to reclaim.
The loss to the Baloch people of their cultural torchbearers as well as their husbands and sons is devastating. Pakistan’s ordinary citizens, fed a diet of media misinformation that India and Afghanistan are funding Balochi nationalism, simply wash their hands.
It is high time that the persecution of Balochis is taken up again at the United Nations. Of secondary importance only is that a complicated melee of military Pakistan, Chinese and Iranian interests are swirling around the borders and the Makran coast. Those “warm waters” are up on the international agenda again.